Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Long Walk to Water: A Mentor Text That Inspires Opinion/Argument Writing

blog post written by:
Sarah Svarda

Have you ever read a book that made you want to take action immediately?  When I finished A Long Walk to Water, the first thing I did was look up the website for Water For South Sudan.  The second thing I did was follow Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut on Twitter because I wanted to know about anything and everything that either of them had to share with the world.  As Linda Sue Park states in her TedX Talk (below), books like A Long Walk to Water do two things for the reader:

1.  Reading the book provides practice at life for the reader.  In this case, the story helps the reader experience unfairness.  The reader learns how to deal with unfair experiences through examples from the characters.  In a Long Walk to Water, Salva's response to the unfairness he faced was with hope and perseverance.  As the students read, they will learn to face unfairness in the same way through Salva's example.
2.  The reader experiences and develops their own empathy for others as they read.  This empathy encourages engagement for that reader.  
This outcome of empathy and the need for engagement is the perfect opportunity to let your children become engaged with the story outside of the walls of the school building.  Read A Long Walk to Water with your children.  Research and brainstorm ways that your children can help the families and children have clean water in South Sudan.  Write.  This is the perfect opportunity to have your children write opinion/argument pieces encouraging others to help their cause.  You will have automatic engagement because the students can't wait to help.
Here's what the book has already inspired as stated by Linda Sue Park in her TedX video (below):

1.  To date, readers of A Long Walk to Water have raised more than one million dollars for Water For South Sudan.
2.  Sixty wells have been dug with that one million dollars.
3.  Each of the sixty wells can serve 2,000 people.
Do the math.
4.  When children no longer have to spend the whole day walking to get water for their families, they can go to school!

Linda Sue Park shares the following books in her TedX Talk which are also great mentor texts to inspire your students to take action and write opinion/argument pieces in the classroom:

Have your students read Wonder by R.J. Palacio and  write opinion/argument pieces about bullying.  Check out the Kind Classroom Challenge as well.  Our fifth grade reading teacher's classroom is a certified "Kind" classroom.  She can't say enough about how the kids have become involved and taken on the ownership of treating each other with respect and kindness.

Crenshaw is a bittersweet story that shares the reality of homelessness that so many of our students face on a daily basis.  After reading Crenshaw, your students will be inspired to share the statistics of homelessness in school-aged children and to educate their peers about what can be done to help. 

Do you have any texts that you've read to your class that inspire opinion writing?  If so, please share them in the comments below.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mesmerized: Bringing the Scientific Method to Life

MESMERIZED: Bringing the Scientific Method to Life
Written by:  Shea Payne
With an additional blog post link from Chandra Verbic of  C. Jayne Teach

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France
Written by: Mara Rockliff  Illustrated by:  Iacopo Bruno


The day Ben Franklin first set foot in Paris, France, he found the city all abuzz. Everyone was talking about something new. Something remarkable, thrilling and strange. Something called Science!
But soon, the straightforward American inventor Benjamin Franklin is upstaged by a compelling and enigmatic figure: Dr. Mesmer. In elaborately staged shows, Mesmer, wearing a fancy coat of purple silk and carrying an iron wand, convinces the people of Paris that he controls a magic force that can make water taste like a hundred different things, cure illness, and control thoughts! But Ben Franklin is not convinced. Will his practical approach of observing, hypothesizing, and testing get to the bottom of the mysterious Mesmer’s tricks? A rip-roaring, lavishly illustrated peek into a fascinating moment in history shows the development and practice of the scientific method—and reveals the amazing power of the human mind. (Via Good Reads)

Lesson Idea:

Teaching students the scientific method is a way of bringing critical thinking and problem solving into your science curriculum. It sparks the interest of budding inventors, curious questioners and kids who just want to know how things work! The scientific method is found in every curriculum in every state and can be easily incorporated into any grade level curriculum by using this wonderfully creative and beautifully illustrated picture book.

In my 4th grade class we used this book to guide a project based lesson on using the scientific method where we created inventions that might be used to solve common problems in everyday life. The students kept and inventor’s “notebook” (we used a section of our interactive science notebooks) , where they recorded their steps through the scientific method, their data, experiments, ideas, drawings and anything else they found useful to help them complete their task. That information was then used to design a final writing piece where the student walked the reader through his/her scientific process from start to finish.

We began our lesson by reading the book and discussing how and why Franklin felt compelled to prove Dr. Mesmer wrong. The book is beautifully illustrated and very interesting, so my students loved it! As we went through the book, we paid special attention to how Franklin went through the scientific method to answer his own questions about Dr. Mesmer’s powers.
For homework that evening, the students were to come up with two common problems that either they or their family faced. The next day, we went through each student’s problems and we discussed if there was already an inexpensive solution, if there was a way to solve the problem and how might we go about coming up with a solution. This took a little time, and in fact, I broke this up into two days. We narrowed it down to four problems that we thought we could solve. Our problems were…

  •        How to keep your cats from eating dangerous houseplants
  •        How to keep your ear buds from getting tangled up in your backpack
  •        Fly repellant
  •        How to keep rugs from rolling up on the corners

The students then chose a problem that they wanted to work on to create a solution or invention that would solve the issue. They were all given the option to work alone or work with a partner or group. Every student chose to work with a partner or a group. From there, we progressed through each step of the scientific method, one step at a time, recording everything as we went along.
When it came to conducting an experiment, the students brought in their materials and conducted the majority of their experiment at school. The only exception was trying the spray on a plant and testing it with a real cat. That was done at home.

After the projects were created, the students took their notes and wrote a final project draft from the first question to the end product. They included a drawing and diagram of their final product. In two of the projects, we had actual prototypes!

From the day we read the book to the day we presented our projects, this activity took seven days. The students LOVED the creative problem solving and I will definitely be using this lesson again!

About the Author:  Shea Payne is a 4th grade teacher at The Discovery School @ Bellwood in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She enjoys spending time with her family, sewing and looking for exciting new ways to teach her students.

Since this book was such a hit, another friend of mine also blogged about using Mesmerized in the classroom.  Visit C. Jayne Teach to view Chandra Verbic's extensively thorough blog post titled: Mesmerized:  Collliding Science and Social Studies through PBL 

Friday, October 30, 2015


By:  Elizabeth Shepherd

Theme is one of the more difficult literature concepts to teach at the elementary level since students at that age are much more comfortable with the concrete than they are with the abstract. To jump start this process it can be helpful to connect the concept of theme with something they are more comfortable with, something like hashtags!

I was inspired by a post I found online at The Curly Classroom.  This blog post discussed students creating hashtags exploring themes of movies they were familiar with. That got me thinking….why couldn’t my students do that with books instead? For the purposes of this lesson I chose to use wordless picture books. They were a perfect fit for so many reasons; no words meant no reading level so none of my students were intimidated with reading struggles, they were quick reads allowing plenty of time for reflection, I was able to emphasize the importance of attention to detail in illustrations when looking for context clues, and I got the chance to expose students to an often overlooked genre of books.

The Lesson
We started by discussing what a hashtag is. I showed the class real world examples from my own social media accounts and then together we came up with hashtags that could be paired with a tweet about finishing the first Harry Potter book. During the discussion I guided student thinking by emphasizing those suggestions that were more about theme and less about the reader’s opinion or tiny details. In this case we were looking for #magic or #friendship not #boring or #Quiddich. It helped when I pushed them to think about the “big picture” of the book and less about the details. (If you'd like to go more in-depth with a hashtag lesson, Wonderopolis has a great post titled, "What is a hashtag?"

Next I booktalked wordless picture books and we had a brief discussion about how to read the pictures. We also reviewed the procedures for reading with a partner. Then I passed out a book, a pencil, and a Post-It to each pair of readers. Their mission was to spread out, read their book with a partner, and then write down as many hashtags as they could think of before time ran out. If time allowed they were able to share their three favorite hashtags with the class. Since this lesson was taught to my library classes, I was able to compile the best hashtags and post them in the hallway to display student work and also to advertise for wordless picture books. (Side note: circulation for wordless picture books drastically increased after this lesson!)

My Results
As evidenced from the pictures, my students still have some work to do on theme but I feel confident that this lesson was memorable and was a great starting point to delve deeper into the concept of theme. I used this with 3rd-6th grade students but I believe it would also work well with older grades. In fact, this lesson was most effective with my 5th and 6th grade students since many of them were already using hashtags on their own social media accounts. Most of my 3rd and 4th grade students knew what a hashtag was or had heard the term before but had little practice using them so we had to spend more time than I would have liked on that part of the lesson. If I were in a regular classroom, I could see myself coming back to the hashtag concept throughout the year with everything students read whether it’s an excerpt from the textbook, a primary source document, a chapter book or graphic novel they’ve been working on independently, or a nonfiction close read.

Overall I felt the students enjoyed the lesson, the topic was memorable enough for me to reference it easily later, and the results were promising enough to encourage me to try this concept again next year. #understandingtheme #winner #nowyougiveitatry

About the Author
Elizabeth Shepherd is a media specialist at Cason Lane Academy in Murfreesboro, TN. She enjoys reading books for children, geeking out over geeky things, and providing free tech support to her friends and family. #haveyoutriedturningitoffandonagain.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem: Research and Letter Writing

Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem:  Research and Letter Writing
By:  Sarah Svarda

Summary from School Library Journal
Kindergarten-Grade 4—Billy Twitters's parents don't mess around when doling out punishments. When the boy fails to clean his room, brush his teeth, and finish his baked peas, they buy him a blue whale. It arrives via FedUp (motto: "Delivering Punishment Worldwide"), and it's up to Billy to take care of it. Rex's goofy illustrations blend the realistic with the fantastic, as in a giant wordless spread of Billy pedaling furiously on his bike, towing the whale behind on a skateboard as the beast's bulk takes out telephone poles and traffic lights. At school, things don't improve; a teacher gives a whale lecture instead of showing a promised cowboy movie, and Billy is uninvited from a pool party when the hostess learns he would have to bring the cetacean. And he soon finds that gathering thousands of krill for its dinner is tough work. At last, after cleaning out the whale's stinky mouth, Billy decides that it's a pretty peaceful place, and he decides to move in. That's a strange ending for an odd story, but young readers will likely enjoy the ridiculous premise, and the many whale facts worked seamlessly into the tale.—Kathleen Kelly MacMillan, Carroll County Public Library, MD

Lesson Idea

This book, by far, is the best read-aloud I've shared with my students this school year.  Mac Barnett seamlessly ties fun facts about blue whales into this absurd story about a young boy being given a blue whale to learn responsibility.  After reading the story together, explain to your students that there is a secret under the dust jacket of the book:

The kids will be excited to see that they can own their very own blue whale if they write a letter to the publisher!  I read this book with first and second grades and explained to the students that we needed to learn a bit more about blue whales so we could write an educated letter to the publisher.  There are certain needs that blue whales have that we needed to understand before we were ready to receive a blue whale.

I pulled nonfiction books about whales and made copies of specific sections of the text.  The following book worked especially well because each page included a different question about the whales:

We used the Jigsaw Method to research and teach each other about blue whales.  Each student in the first group read the same informational text about blue whales and took notes on the sidebars of their text.  Then, the groups moved to a second team where each "expert" from the first group shared their whale facts.  It was an easy way for my students to learn a lot of new information about blue whales in a short amount of time (45 minute library lesson).

After we researched and took notes about blue whales, we wrote our letters to the publisher.  I made a big deal out of showing the kids the big envelopes that were already post-marked and ready to send as soon as our letters were finished.  If you are a classroom teacher, you could let each child write his/her own letter to the publisher.  We wrote a letter as a class.

We measured areas of the school to see if we had enough room for a blue whale.  We decided a tank right outside of the library would be just enough space. (We even filled out a work order to ask our maintenance man to build the tank for us).

After we finished our letters, they were off to the publisher!

I taught this lesson with first and second graders, but I think older students would enjoy the story and the fun of not knowing what will exactly happen when they mail off those letters!  The best part of this unit was that each part of the lesson easily rolled into the next because the students were so excited to see what would happen when they mailed off their letters...

Want to know what happens when the publisher receives the letter?
Watch Mac Barnett, the author, tell you himself in this amazing Ted Talk.

And finally...the most important thing...if your students want to send letters to Hyperion, be sure to use their NEW address:

125 West End Avenue 3rd Floor
New York, NY 10023

Sunday, August 30, 2015

This or That! Fun-Based Research Writing

This or That! Fun-Based Research Writing
By:  Angela Bunyi

This or That Edge Book Series Summary:

Would you choose … to fall into quicksand or through thin ice? You must pick one or the other! Test your decision-making skills with these nail-biting survival questions. Then try them on your friends! -Capstone

Lesson Idea:

Evidence-based writing is a foundational skill threaded throughout the Common Core standards. Regardless of your state’s adaption or modification of the standards, this evidence-based writing lesson is an important skill that requires researching, comparing/contrasting, providing opinions and evidence, and- just as important- plenty of time to talk and write about what we read. These books are a perfect way to achieve these goals while having fun and being engaged.
As stated by the series summary, each book is filled with questions to pose to your students in a “Would You Rather” format.  For example, would you rather cross a river with piranhas or would you rather cross a river with caimans? These books are highly engaging and have quite the variety on topics. Start by projecting the two pages on the Smartboard while you read it to the classroom, without discussion or modeled thinking.  In this example, piranhas versus caimans was used with a second grade classroom. 

As with any new or important skill, it is best to model the process of evidence-based writing for the class together in a natural, authentic way. Consequently, as the passage is read a second time, underline words and phrases that would provide evidence as to who you’d rather swim with (this is modeling using evidence from the text), all while talking through your ideas as you read and take notes. This would be a good time to model and introduce the use of symbols. Using the research to back up your personal opinions, you can use checkmarks for “good” points (or stars, hearts, etc.) and X’s for the “bad” points. Upon completion of the second read, count up the “good” vs. the “bad” to see where this debate should go. The talk might sound something like this:
Okay as I read through the piranhas’ side, I first see that they rarely bite humans.  And it says here that if you are attacked by a piranha, you would be eaten in minutes, which could be a good thing because it won’t last that long.  Although your chances of escaping an attack are zero.  Those aren’t good chances.  Let’s look at the Caiman side.  Oh it says here that there’s a small chance you may be able to get away!  Hmm, but if it does attack you, you’ll lose an arm and a leg, if you don’t drown first.  Well that doesn’t sound very good because it seems like it would be a slower attack than the piranha.  Let’s add up the bad and the worse points on each side with a checkmark or an X.  So on the piranha side, I have two checkmarks because it rarely bites humans and the attack is fast.  On the Caiman side, I only have one checkmark because I may get away, but it’s only a small chance.  So I suppose if I had to choose, I’d choose to cross a piranha filled river.

Next, tell your students that you are going to model how to take all those opinions and evidence to write about it. This could be overwhelming for our youngest, autistic, and/or struggling writers, so it is recommended that you provide and model a formula to start the process. The one I created and used goes like this and should be written on an anchor chart for display and reference:
State which choice you’d rather choose

Evidence from text #1

Opinion statement tying in or expanding based on evidence

Evidence from the text #2

Opinion statement tying in or expanding based on evidence

Restate choice you’d make

Whether you are completing this writing unit with second graders or fifth and sixth graders, your students will be excited about sharing what they've learned with evidence to back up their opinions!

Angela's complete unit can be found on Teachers Pay Teachers

About the Author:
Angela Bunyi is a first grade teacher at Discovery School in Murfreesboro, TN. She enjoys bursts of healthy eating and working out, reading in her sunroom, and petting her cat, Mochi.  #shemightbeacrazycatlady